Should you speak Japanese when work in Japan? The answer is not as simple as it may seem.

3 months ago, I had a chance to go back to Japan for a short trip (for family stuff). Back then, I was surprised that the number of foreigners dwarfed the local population in Tokyo and Osaka and a lot of local businesses quickly adapted to the circumstance by hiring someone who speaks English, Mandarin, Cantonese and so on.

I bumped into a random tourist couple from Seattle. They told me that there are many places and activities available to English speakers and that they don’t even need to speak Japanese to explore — they even told me about cool activities that I didn’t even know that existed!

This made me wonder if people from overseas don’t even need to learn and speak Japanese to live in Japan and I can easily assume it’ll be possible even if you stay there for a while.

Personally, I’d recommend you learn and speak the local language if you ever want to learn things about Japan regardless of how many Japanese people around you are able to communicate with you in English. The reason is simple: there’s a certain limited amount of information, knowledge or experience that you can reach via a foreign language in Japan. That’s what I’ve experienced in North America in the opposite direction. To be frank, there are small and isolated Japanese communities here and members can survive without speaking English at all with the exception of basic things like how to grocery shop, how to take transportation, etc…

Frankly, they may see North America through the lens of Japanese communities, which, for some reason, usually leads to negative conversations such as “If this is in Japan, this won’t take this long.”, “Why is it that servers are chatting while we are waiting.” and this list goes on. As we all know, it’s not a healthy mentality and there’s no positive vibe there.

Learning a new language is a stressful and uncomfortable experience especially at the beginning. I felt like starting my life all over again when I first landed in North America 3 years ago. It wasn’t as much fun as I had first imagined and it destroyed pretty much all my confidence. Even now I can’t speak English perfectly and still have a hard time communicating.

But that’s all I needed to get myself ready to explore. In fact, English guides me through new discoveries of why it is the way it is here such as why people in North America keep missing deadlines and seems like not many people dare to care, why work culture in Japan in general may not be an environment that encourages innovation.

Bottom Line

Whether you learn a new language is your call at the end of the day. I know a few friends of mine who work/worked in Japan without speaking any Japanese for years, so it’s possible. But I’d recommend you learn and speak local language to grasp new things you’ve never encountered.